Walking is an unappreciated art. In some places it is a privilege rather; an exercise which has to be taken with caution and attached to what time of the day it is and the social strata of the alley you are walking through. That sometimes inexorable need to walk and mull over life just like Camus did, or to walk away while the world passes you, remains a need reduced to just fancies.
But some cities are meant for walking, in fact they elevate the action of walking to almost a beautiful art. There is always a sense of trepidation mixed with excited amusement while walking the streets of a new place. The streetlights seem to glow new, the strange language pouring around sing like a dis-jointed melody and the people; sometimes friendly strangers and sometimes nonchalant foreigners going about their familiar business of life.
There was something about Florentine streets. Perhaps it is the strange familiarity when you see the way Italians refuse to make queues and talk in loud friendly tones at table in the street. Or perhaps it that awed sense of history that the art lying on every corner of the street brings to you.
That winter evening, the glowing lights of the street flickered a bit in the fog over the river. The bridge looked like a vision out of some phantasmagoria, hazy rows of light inviting you to go to the beyond. I had just finished a cup of coffee, standing and politely making stunted conversation with the Italian college student who worked the cafe. I had made the mistake of sitting down for a coffee. An old British man explained how standing and having coffee is not only more Italian, but also cheaper. Strange custom I had pipped, why wouldn’t one want to have their coffee in peace while gazing at the streets. He had laughed and said, perhaps go to Paris next. Of course, my insidious want to seem more local, something that every traveller wants to be, ensured I brushed up my local manners in the next few weeks.
It had been a few days through Italy, a haze of too much art and history coupled with faint glimmers of attempted romance. Like most fools, I thought perhaps travel would cement an already fragmented love. But that remained for another time.
The other side of Ponte Vechio came up as a loud gaggle of hawkers and sellers. To a person walking up those beckoning light it almost looked like Dali bent his brush to slip the artistic curve of the bridge into almost grotesque crude noises and incongruent bent human shapes. Taken aback, I pretended to admire an old Italian woman’s handmade jewellery out of that subtle deference one has to an alien culture. Wanting to step back into the harmonious scene of the bridge, I turned when some said, “Behen, roses?”
Too startled to respond, with a puzzled smile, I turned to see a dark, mousy man brandishing a large bouquet of dark red roses. “You are Indian no? Muslim?” he inquired eagerly and very direct in his manner. The veneer of politeness is just an artificial cloak the bourgeoisie wear, for the others it is directness to connect. I nodded and smile tentatively.
“I am from Bangladesh. Very happy to meet you. How come you come in the winter? Very cold”
I vaguely explained a trip though Italy, and my ending up in Florence. “ You live here?” I asked.
“Yes. I have been here for 4 years now. I sell roses now.”
“I used to work for a butcher. But then I didn’t like it. Very pushy man.”
“How come you came here? To Italy?” All the time finding it very strange to meet this Bangladeshi with roses.
“Work is very bad back home. I came here to start my own business. My friend is doing very well you see. But It is difficult to start a business anywhere you see. So I am saving to start something of my own.” He puffed up his chest.
I took out my cigarette to smoke, “Can i smoke with you madam?”. Of course, I said, and lent him a cigarette and lit it for him, as he motioned me to sit with him on the pavement of the street.
There we were, him and me, in the romantic dimly-lit streets of Florence. All the while I kept looking at the people trudging by while this man with roses talked to me.
“Your name is a very popular name back home you know. It is very common. You know what it means?” He asked me with earnest eyes.
I shrugged my shoulders, more intent on feeling the smoke fill my lungs on this cold day.
“You are very lucky you know, this is a beautiful city!” I looked around wistfully, imagining evenings spent sipping coffee and eating antipasti among loud but musical chatter.
“No, you know. It is lonely. It is like being in a mad house where you are the only one sane and understand. But the truth is you are misfit, the mad one not able to understand the common language, the exile.”
“Exile? that’s a rather strong word. You came here yourself! And would I love such an exile!”
“The rich have that privilege to exile themselves to ensconce themselves into art and culture while having their fill of coffee. Where you hear music, I hear the end of the day. But you still go back home; to a home that is familiar and inviting. I see the water flowing under this bridge, imagining it might somewhere meet the Brahmaputra and see my home. I have made the river my eyes.”
“You get tired of home you know.” I said. “It’s the claustrophobia that makes you run to new places and just sit like this and feel a place take that temporary abode within you. Just those few days to feel transformed…”
“And let me guess madam, you love walking the streets of these beautiful places you go to? Often humming a tune, recalling all the books you must’ve read somewhere, imagining a life that is beautiful?”
I looked at him for a long moment and jerked my hand back as the burnt cigarette butt seared my finger tips.
“Yes. perhaps. But you make it sound rather vulgar and pretentious.”
“No, Let’s walk. Come. Just down this street to where those gondola thieves are. I’ve never bene able to understand the fascination with them. They are from a bygone era that does not exist. Not like the art all of you see behind those big closed doors. Not like that tall white boy everyone comes to see from everywhere..”
“David you mean? Aah. He is beautiful, the story behind it is even more beautiful”
“I know what the story is. See, he is beautiful. Not these thieves who pretend to hail an era that doesn’t exist.”
“How do you know about the statue?”
He chuckled as we walked on heading towards the shimmering water. “I once asked a middle-aged Indian woman to explain it to me. I was selling roses outside the museum then. She read it out to me from this fat blue book she seemed to be reading from while seeing the statues.”
I laughed at his cheekiness. and offered him another cigarette. We walked silent for a while, each of us cocooned in our journey, seeing the place through different eyes. Somewhere someone played a fiddle and singing to the moon. It was only then I remembered I had left someone far away, an argument that only lovers can have can make one run away.
We reached the end of the road and entered another bridge. Much smaller and narrower, our footsteps clanked loudly over the wood. No one seemed to be around. It was quiet, even the water beneath flowed silently.
“Wait, you remind me a of a woman I loved long ago. I used to give her white roses. Let me give you those please? Hold on”
“No, please!” I protested as I started turning back.
There, lying by the side of the bridge, where the water shimmered most, was a large bunch of white roses. Oddly Flores para los muertos screeched in my mind. Strange association to beautiful flowers. But then, they were lovely in the Florentine air.
I opened my mouth to scream out his name, to thank him. But I realised I didn’t know…I hadn’t asked; lost in the haze of this new city I was walking in.